29 August, 2015

The Exile of the Despensers, 29 August 1321

In 1321, Edward II was forced by their baronial enemies, whom Edward shortly afterwards took to calling the Contrariants, to send his 'favourites' Hugh Despenser the Younger, his chamberlain, and Hugh's father Hugh Despenser the Elder into supposedly perpetual exile from England.  The deadline for the two Despensers to leave the country was 29 August 1321, the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Edward's reign, exactly 694 years ago.  Here's a look at what happened.

Edward II, who had little if any capacity for learning from the past and from his own mistakes, showed excessive favouritism towards Hugh Despenser the Younger at the beginning of the 1320s.  Hugh was his nephew-in-law, married to Edward's eldest niece Eleanor de Clare since May 1306, but until he was appointed as the chamberlain of Edward's household in 1318 - apparently against Edward's own wishes - the king had never shown the slightest interest in him or indeed, much awareness that he even existed.  That changed completely after Hugh was placed close to him in the key position in the royal household, and the two men spent much time together.  The exact nature of their relationship cannot be known, but after 1318 Edward became intensely dependent on Hugh in some way, either emotionally or politically or both.  The annalist of a Devon abbey rather revealingly referred to them in 1326 as rex et maritus eius, "the king and his husband."

Just after the October 1320 parliament at Westminster, Edward ordered the peninsula of Gower in South Wales to be taken into his own hands.  To cut a very long story short, the owner of Gower, William de Braose, who had no son, promised the reversion of his land to various people: his son-in-law John, Lord Mowbray, Hugh Despenser the Younger, Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore, and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk.  John Mowbray took possession of Gower in the autumn of 1320, which prompted the king to take it into his own hands on the grounds that Mowbray had no royal licence to enter the land, presumably with the intention of granting it to his 'favourite' Hugh Despenser instead, or so a lot of people assumed.  Edward's official Richard Foxcote was in fact unable to take possession of Gower thanks to a "great crowd of armed Welshmen" who prevented Foxcote from "executing the mandate, so that he could do nothing therein without danger of death." (The chancery rolls are amusingly deadpan sometimes.) [Patent Rolls 1317-21, 547-8]

The Marcher lords were furious and concerned; the king's behaviour threatened the privileges they had in the March, extra privileges which English lords did not enjoy (which had originally been granted to them in exchange for keeping the Welsh border safe, but since Edward I had conquered North Wales in the early 1280s, the Marchers had extra privileges but no extra responsibilities to justify them; a "dangerous anachronism" as Professor T. F. Tout called them a few decades ago).  A confederation of allies formed against Hugh Despenser the Younger and by extension the king: the two Roger Mortimers; Edward II's brother-in-law Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford; Edward's two former 'favourites' Roger Damory and Hugh Audley; Roger, Lord Clifford; John 'the Rich' Giffard, lord of Brimpsfield; possibly John, Lord Hastings; Sir John Charlton, formerly Edward II's chamberlain; the earl of Lancaster's younger brother Henry, who was Edward's first cousin and Hugh Despenser's brother-in-law; Maurice, Lord Berkeley and his sons Thomas and Maurice; and a whole host of other lords and knights.  It was a formidable coalition (see here for more background and information).

Edward II spent much of the early months of 1321 attempting to reconcile the disgruntled Marchers and calm the situation, but with Hugh Despenser permanently at his side, this was bound to fail.  On 4 May 1321, the Marcher lords began a massive attack on the Welsh lands belonging to the younger Despenser, followed by an attack on his and his father's English lands as well.  For weeks, the Marchers indulged themselves in vandalism and plunder on an almost unimaginable scale, murder (of the constables of Despenser the Younger's castles and fifteen unnamed Welshmen, among others), assault, extortion, false imprisonment and theft.  The Despensers were the intended target of their rage and greed, but it was the innocent who suffered most: the priory of Brecon, the 'poor people' of Swansea and the 'poor people' of Loughborough, chased out of their homes for three months by the terribly valiant Marchers, were among those who petitioned the king for help.  The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, though he loathed the Despensers and condemned their brutality, greed and penchant for extortion, thought that the Marchers had gone too far: "Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their retinues? Though formerly their cause had been just, they now turned right into wrong." (ed. Denholm-Young, p. 115).  The Despensers may well have deserved such treatment, but their tenants and others who had done nothing wrong except live near the areas where the Despensers held lands did not, and although Edward II's foolish favouritism pushed the Marchers into rebellion, they put themselves equally in the wrong by inflicting endless misery and suffering on innocents.  The bishop of Worcester, Thomas Cobham, informed the pope that the Marchers were capturing castles and committing homicides, and admitted that he had no idea why.  The letter of Cobham, who as a bishop was better-informed than most, probably demonstrates that few people understood the Marchers' aims, and it is doubtful that many cared; the loss of their anachronistic privileges, such as the right to enter their lands without royal permit, was of minimal concern or interest to anyone besides the Marchers themselves. The Brut (ed. Brie, p. 213) says "when the king saw that the barons would not cease of their cruelty, the king was sore afraid lest they would destroy him and his realm." This may not be an exaggeration; the Despenser War, although short in duration, was terrifically violent.

On 28 June 1321, Edward II's first cousin and nemesis Thomas, earl of Lancaster met the Marchers, or some of them, at Sherburn near Pontefract in Yorkshire, where an indenture was drawn up approving their actions against the Despensers.  Subsequently, the Marchers headed for London to attend the parliament which was due to begin on 15 July and to demand the Despensers' exile. The Marchers seized victuals from local inhabitants and pillaged the countryside – not only Despenser manors – all the way from Yorkshire to London.  John Mowbray, Stephen Baret, Jocelyn Deyville and Bogo Bayouse stole livestock, goods and chattels from the townspeople of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in Yorkshire and took all the items to the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, which belonged to Mowbray. They even robbed the church. [National Archives SC 8/7/301] Adherents of Roger Mortimer destroyed the houses of John Bloxham in Oxfordshire, stole his goods and assaulted his servants, while the monastery of St Albans, according to its chroniclers, was only saved from the general pillaging because one of the Marcher leaders (unnamed) fell ill at Aylesbury.  The Marchers were not above using coercion and violence to compel men, including their own followers, to join them: Roger Mortimer forced his retainer John Mershton to ride in arms with him to London, but Mershton escaped and went home. Nor was this an isolated example; Mortimer, Hugh Audley, John Giffard, Henry Tyes and John Maltravers broke into Roger Chandos's castle at Snodhill in Herefordshire around Easter 1321, assaulted his servants, and threatened to burn his manors if he didn't join them. They took Chandos with them as a prisoner, but as soon as he could, he escaped. The rebels also forced a local rector to ride to London with them, tried to buy people's allegiance with money, and seized the property of those who refused to join them.  [Scott L. Waugh, 'The Profits of Violence: the Minor Gentry in the Rebellion of 1321-22 in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire', Speculum, 52 (1977), p. 849; Roy Martin Haines, Edward II, p. 149]

The Marchers arrived outside London on 29 July, two weeks late for parliament, perhaps because all the pillaging and terrorising people had delayed them.  The citizens refused to let them into the city.  Edward also refused to meet them or even to listen to their demands that the Despensers be perpetually exiled from England, and they and their heirs disinherited "as false and traitorous criminals and spies."  (Spies?)  The barons therefore placed themselves and their armies outside the city walls, at strategic locations, to prevent the king leaving.  [Annales Paulini, ed. Stubbs, pp. 294-6; Vita, p. 112]  They sent two knights as envoys to Edward, to tell him that they held both Hugh Despensers "enemies and traitors to you and to the kingdom, and for this they wish them to be removed from here."  Edward refused to meet the envoys, offering the rather feeble excuse that they had no letters of credence.  [J.R. Maddicott. Thomas of Lancaster, 283-5]

The Marchers finally entered London on 1 August 1321. The Annales Paulini (pp. 296-7) say that Hugh Despenser the Younger was sailing along the Thames off Gravesend at this time, visiting the king at night and urging him to delay any agreement with the Marchers.  Apparently incapable of reacting to anything except with violence and destruction, the Marchers threatened to burn the city from Charing Cross to Westminster if Despenser didn't desist. Edward's allies the earls of Pembroke, Richmond, Surrey and Arundel finally brought the Marchers' demands to Edward. If he refused to consent to the Despensers' exile, he would be deposed. The events of almost exactly ten years before, when the Ordainers had threatened him with deposition if he did not consent to Piers Gaveston's exile, were repeating themselves. The royalist earl of Pembroke, doing his best to help Edward, told him "Consider, lord king…the power of the barons; take heed of the danger that threatens; neither brother nor sister should be dearer to thee than thyself. Do not therefore for any living soul lose thy kingdom," and, quoting the Bible, "He perishes on the rocks that loves another more than himself." He went on to advise the king "if you will listen to your barons you shall reign in power and glory; but if, on the other hand, you close your ears to their petitions, you may perchance lose the kingdom and all of us."  [Vita. 113]

Even these heartfelt words and the renewed threat of deposition did not move Edward. Anguished at the thought of his friends being sent into exile, he continued to refuse, declaring that it was unjust and contrary to his coronation oath to exile the Despensers without giving them a chance to be heard. He suggested that they go to Ireland until the anger of the Marchers had cooled, and declared that it was deplorable for noblemen to be judged in such a manner and that he knew they were not traitors. He did have a point: nothing Hugh Despenser the Elder and Younger had done up to May 1321, for all that they irritated the Marcher lords and others beyond measure, merited perpetual exile and disinheritance of themselves and their heirs.  Pure spite and envy motivated their enemies. It fell to Queen Isabella, only a few weeks after bearing her youngest child Joan, to break the deadlock: she went down on her knees before her husband and begged him, for the good of his realm, to exile the Despensers. Finally accepting that he had no choice, Edward II entered the great hall of Westminster on 14 August, with his cousins the earls of Pembroke and Richmond on either side of him, met the barons, and agreed to banish his friends. Chroniclers Adam Murimuth and Geoffrey le Baker both make the point that Edward was afraid of civil war if he did not do so, but never consented inwardly to the barons’ demands, while the Rochester chronicler says that he was compelled by force and fear.

In the presence of Edward, but not the Despensers themselves, judgement was given against them.  They were accused, among many other things, of "evil covetousness," accroaching to themselves royal power, guiding and counselling the king evilly, only allowing the magnates to speak to Edward in their presence, "ousting the king from his duty," removing good counsellors from their positions and replacing them "by other false and bad ministers of their conspiracy," and "plotting to distance the affection of our lord the king from the peers of the land, to have sole government of the realm between the two of them."  Hugh Despenser the Younger's illegal killing of the Welsh nobleman Llywelyn Bren in 1318 was one of the charges against him, as were his attempts to disinherit Roger Damory and Hugh Audley.  The judgement decreed that the Despensers "shall be disinherited for ever as disinheritors of the crown and enemies of the king and his people, and that they shall be exiled from the realm of England, without returning at any time," saving only the consent of the king, prelates, earls and barons in parliament. They were convicted by notoriety, with no chance to speak in their own defence.  The date of their departure – to take place from Dover and nowhere else, as with Piers Gaveston in 1311 – was set as the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, or 29 August 1321.  [Close Rolls 1318-23, pp. 492-494, 541-3; Parliament Rolls of Medieval England]  Hugh the Elder left England immediately; where he went is not certain, but perhaps to one of Edward II's French territories, Gascony or Ponthieu.  Hugh the Younger, meanwhile, famously became a pirate in the English Channel.  (Hugh had a certain...panache.)

Between 20 August and late September 1321, Edward II was forced to grant a pardon to more than 400 men for the murders, abductions, thefts and vandalism they had committed in the Despensers' lands, which crimes the Marchers claimed were "a case of necessity, [and] ought not to be corrected or punished by the rigour of the law, nor could this happen without causing too much trouble." [Patent Rolls 1321-4, pp. 15-21; TNA DL 10/234; PROME] (That's pretty convenient, isn't it? Break the law on an epic scale and cause untold harm to untold people, then say 'Ah, but you see, it was a case of necessity, and besides, prosecuting us would cause too much trouble.')  Edward, not surprisingly, later protested that he had done this unwillingly and that any pardon he had given under coercion was invalid and contravened his coronation oath; the barons tended to use the oath against Edward when it suited them and ignore it when it didn't.  [Vita, 116]  Edward, the following morning at breakfast, talked to his ally Hamo Hethe, bishop of Rochester, "anxious and sad."  He swore that he would "within half a year make such an amend that the whole world would hear of it and tremble," and he was as good as his word. In December 1321, he set off on a military campaign against the Marchers, the Despensers were back in England from their supposedly perpetual exile by early March 1322, and at least twenty of the leading Contrariants were executed, including the church-robbing John Mowbray, Stephen Baret and Jocelyn Deyville.  For all the wrongs that the Despensers committed, it's hard to shed too many tears for their vanquished foes.

26 August, 2015

The Ghost of Edward II: Political use of sexual allegations in the downfall of Richard II (Guest Post)

Today I'm delighted to welcome author Gareth Russell to the blog, as part of his tour for his book A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I! Gareth has a great post for us about Edward II's great-grandson Richard II, who was very similar to him in some ways and who suffered the same fate, deposition, in 1399. There's also a chance to win a copy of Gareth's book!


Richard II, who reigned from 1377 until 1399, had very little in common with his great-grandfather, Edward II, except their eventual fate – to be deposed. In most other ways, the men were complete opposites. In contrast to the virile and earthy Edward II, with his easygoing repartee with ordinary people and passion for manual labour, Richard II was a slender aesthete with an obsessive passion for the niceties of palace etiquette.

King Richard II.

At Richard’s court, ceremonial was turned into an art form, an elaborate and complicated political dance with the King and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, in the starring roles. Deportment was compulsory, manners strict and pageantry, even when surrounding seemingly trivial everyday moments such as the royal family’s mealtimes, was constant. Bejewelled cutlery was introduced alongside gastronomic delights boasting the latest spices and recipes, as silent courtiers, decked out in ruinously expensive finery, watched their masters eat. Fashion at Richard II’s court was dedicated to showing off the male physique – tights accentuated muscles well-toned from hunting or jousting, high-necked robes complemented broad shoulders, while the arrival of the codpiece obviously drew attention to the most prized attribute. Queen Anne and her European entourage also pioneered riding side-saddle for ladies, as well as modish continental conceits like shoes for men that were so long and pointed they required golden chains buckled to the knees to hold their curls upright. Anne, shimmering from head to toe, was doted upon by her husband, who built her a bathhouse, a painted audience chamber and a new ballroom in her favourite home, along with a private lavatory decorated with two thousand painted tiles. Richard II, fair-haired and softly handsome, and Anne of Bohemia, by no means a great beauty but with a regal presence and a ‘gentle and pretty’ face, gazed down at their courtiers from the remote plinths on which they had installed themselves as icons of absolutism, the venerated custodians of the Plantagenet legacy.

However, as Richard’s feud with his cousin Henry, Duke of Hertford, and other members of the nobility accelerated, he found it difficult to escape the legacy of his great-grandfather. Edward II’s deposition had struck at the sacral notion of kingship and the political legacy of Isabella of France’s quarrel with her husband was to bedevil their descendants for the rest of the Middle Ages. The notion that a king could be deposed rather than simply challenged and openly opposed, as had been the case with King John and King Henry III in the thirteenth century, was one that Richard II seemed to disregard as an aberration rather than a living threat. His push towards absolutism, faintly reminiscent of Edward’s own alleged tyranny in the last years of his reign, helped unite the aristocracy against him, culminating in mass revulsion when he tried to disinherit his cousin Henry after the death of his father John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in 1399. As the political accusations of similarities with Edward II mounted, so did aspersions about Richard’s sexual activities. Richard’s detested cabal of favourites were likened to Piers Gaveston and allegations that he had gone to bed with some of them, including Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, helped damage the King’s prestige.

Anne of Bohemia (d. 1394). Richard II's first queen.

I can remember first hearing suggestions that Suffolk was Richard II’s lover at a postgraduate lecture in Belfast, in a tone that depressingly suggested that homosexual activity was somehow still a cause for slight mirth. Unlike Edward II with Piers Gaveston, however, there is in fact very little to support the idea that Richard II had sex with Michael de la Pole, who was thirty-seven years his senior and a trusted adviser whose prominence in Richard’s government helped fuel almost certainly inaccurate rumours that he seduced the King. As with many of the rumours surrounding Edward II, it seems the theory of Suffolk’s affair with Richard is the product of the fertile speculations of subsequent generations.

There is admittedly more contemporary whispers about de Vere than de la Pole, particularly in Thomas Walsingham’s chronicle of Richard’s reign, though it is of course difficult for an historian to known how reliable Walsingham’s sources were – or how active his imagination. De Vere was about five years older than the King and custodian of one of the oldest aristocratic titles in England as 9th Earl of Oxford following his father’s death in 1371. He married and then divorced the King’s cousin Philippa and for his second wife married one of Anne of Bohemia’s ladies-in-waiting. Richard’s affection for de Vere resulted in him being made England’s first marquis as Marquess of Dublin in 1385. The introduction of the rank of marquess, from the French marquis, was problematic. It helped upset the apple cart of the English nobility’s rankings, since the ancient title of ‘earl’ had always been the highest and only eclipsed recently by the rank of duke, usually given to a member of the royal house and introduced by Richard’s predecessor, Edward III. Importing a new title that outranked the earls was bound to play badly and after Richard’s deposition, Henry IV discontinued the practice on the grounds that the title was an alien one to the English nobility. The half-French King Henry VI restored its use in 1442 and Henry VIII’s French-educated wife, Anne Boleyn, enjoyed the rank in her own right after a ceremony at Windsor Castle in September 1532. A year after his marquisate, de Vere was given the royal-sounding title of Duke of Ireland. This not only tied him to a country rather than a county, but it should be borne in mind that before 1542 the English kings were ‘Lords of Ireland’, rather than kings, which meant that de Vere’s Hibernian title potentially suggested a parity of esteem with his monarch.

As aristocratic opposition to de Vere’s prominence and rapid promotion solidified, comparisons to Piers Gaveston proliferated. De Vere lacked Piers’s spirited and ultimately suicidal optimism – when he was forced to flee abroad, he stayed there. He died of natural causes in Louvain at the age of thirty in 1392. When his embalmed body was brought back to England for burial, many nobles stayed away from the funeral because they could not yet hide their hatred for him. King Richard kissed the corpse’s hand and gazed lovingly on the duke-marquess-earl’s face. Whether their relationship was an intense friendship, an unconsummated passion or a sexual affair is something which, I think, is likely to remain unknown. It is difficult to comment on it with the same confidence as one can discuss Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston that, to my mind at least, has most of the evidence supporting the fact that it was romantic.

What is perhaps more revealing is the timing of comparisons between de Vere and Gaveston, and Richard and Edward, in gauging how much “revulsion” towards the King’s sexuality had helped bring down Edward II in 1327. Robert de Vere fled Richard’s court and died seven years before Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV. Insinuations linking him to Piers Gaveston and Richard II to his great-grandfather may have been brought up in the more hostile chronicles after or just before Richard was dragged off his throne, but they were not the immediate cause of it. Richard survived for seven years after his alleged lover’s death in exile, in much the same way as Edward II recovered from Gaveston’s horrible death to rule for fifteen more years, and it was his feud with his cousin Henry and Edward’s favour towards the Despensers that ultimately brought the two men down. If anything, the politico-sexual allegations flung at the Plantagenet kings in the 1310s and 1390s reflect the flexibility of medieval attitudes towards same-sex activity – on the one hand, it could be used as an insult to undermine a king or his favourite, but on the other the revulsion that modern writers seem to imagine it provoked clearly was not strong enough to wrest a crown from God’s anointed. In that way at least, medieval people continue to have more subtleties and nuances than we are often prepared to allow them.

Gareth Russell is an historian and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied Modern History at the University of Oxford and completed a postgraduate in medieval history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including his most recent book, A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I. He is currently writing a biography of Queen Catherine Howard.


Thank you for the fascinating post, Gareth! I've linked to The History of the English Monarchy's Amazon page at the top of the post, and I also have a free copy to give away to one lucky reader! To enter, just leave a comment here with your email address (so I know how to get in touch with you) or if you prefer, email me at: edwardofcaernarfon@yahoo.com. The deadline is Wednesday 2 September.  I'll email you back with a quick reply to let you know that you've been successfully entered into the draw. Good luck! :-)

22 August, 2015

22 August 1358: Death of Isabella of France, Dowager Queen of England

Today is the 657th anniversary of the death of Isabella of France, dowager queen of England, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III, at Hertford Castle on 22 August 1358.

Isabella was probably sixty-two years old at the time of her death, born in late 1295 or thereabouts.  There are a few silly myths told about the last twenty-eight years of her life following her son Edward III's coup d'état on 19 October 1330.  She did not go mad after Roger Mortimer's execution and thereafter suffer periodic episodes of insanity, she was not immured in a nunnery, and she certainly was not imprisoned at Castle Rising, as demonstrated by the fact that she died at Hertford Castle.  The myth of her incarceration at Castle Rising and her madness turns out, like so many other historical tall tales often repeated to this day, to have been invented by Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century.  Following a period of two years or less spent under comfortable house arrest at Windsor Castle after October 1330, Isabella lived a purely conventional life as a dowager queen, travelling round her estates, entertaining guests and spending vast amounts of money on clothes and jewels.  Her lands were restored to her in November 1331.

Isabella's household accounts fortuitously survive for the last few months of her life, and record her visitors and letters and the gifts she made to others.  Her son the king and her eldest grandson Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales, visited her a few times, as did her second grandson Lionel of Antwerp (b. 1338), earl of Ulster and later duke of Clarence.  Other visitors included her first cousin Henry of Grosmont (c. 1310-1361), first duke of Lancaster, son of her uncle Henry, earl of Lancaster, and the countess of Pembroke and the comes de la March, who as I pointed out recently were not Roger Mortimer's daughter Agnes and grandson Roger Mortimer as often romantically assumed but Marie de St Pol and Isabella's second cousin Jacques de Bourbon, the French count of La Marche.  Isabella spent just under 1400 pounds, a truly staggering sum, on clothes and jewels, but also - she tended to be bookish - plenty of money on having new books made and illustrated for herself.  She left her large book collection to her two surviving children, Edward III, king of England, and Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, who lived with her mother for the last few months of her life and received a gift of a black palfrey horse with saddle and embroidered gold fittings (spiffy!) from her mother.  Sadly, Isabella outlived two of her four children: John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall, died in 1336, and Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders, in 1355.

Isabella seems to have been ill for some months before she died: she sent a man to London three times in February 1358 to buy medicines for her and also paid her physician Master Laurence for attending her and her daughter Queen Joan for a month, though she was well and fit enough in June that year to travel to Canterbury on her last pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket, whom both she and Edward II venerated for many years.  Isabella generally was fit and healthy: she outlived all her siblings by many years (the last of them, Charles IV, had died in 1328, three decades earlier) and also lived much longer than her parents had (Philip IV of France died at forty-six, Joan I of Navarre in her early thirties).

The dowager queen's body remained in the chapel of Hertford Castle for three months until 23 November 1358; a long delay between death and burial was entirely usual in the royal family.  Isabella was buried, not next to her husband Edward II in St Peter's Abbey, Gloucester, not in Westminster Abbey with her parents-in-law Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, but in the church of the Greyfriars or Franciscans. her favourite order, in London.  I don't know if this was her own choice or her son Edward III's.  Her aunt and her husband's stepmother Marguerite of France, queen of England, had been buried there in 1318, and the heart of her husband's grandmother Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III, also lay in the Greyfriars' church in London.  Isabella's daughter Joan of the Tower would also be buried there four years later.

Isabella was not buried next to Roger Mortimer, as numerous novels and even works of non-fiction continue to state.  He was buried at the Greyfriars church a hundred miles away in Coventry, and his body may have been moved to Wigmore to lie among his ancestors, according to two petitions from his widow Joan Geneville to Edward III.  Isabella was buried with Edward II's heart in a casket on her chest, and with the clothes she had worn to their wedding fifty years before.  Sadly, her tomb was lost during the Reformation, and the Greyfriars church was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt and then destroyed again during the Blitz.

11 August, 2015

Isabella Of France Was Not Visited By Any Of Roger Mortimer's Family In 1357/58

After Edward III's palace revolution of 19 October 1330, which removed his mother Isabella of France and her ally Roger Mortimer, earl of March, from power, Isabella lived a conventional and mostly rather obscure life as a queen dowager until her death twenty-eight years later.  Her household account for the last few months of her life in late 1357 and 1358 fortuitously survives, and shows her travelling between her estates, spending lots of money on jewels, clothes and minstrels, and receiving many visitors including her son the king, daughter-in-law Queen Philippa and grandsons Edward of Woodstock and Lionel of Antwerp, the prince of Wales and the earl of Ulster.  Isabella died at Hertford Castle on Wednesday 22 August 1358 probably at the age of sixty-two, and was buried just over three months later at the church of the Greyfriars, the Franciscans or Friars Minor, in London.

Other visitors to Isabella in the last months of her life included the countess of Pembroke and the comes [earl or count] de la March.  It is usually assumed that these two people were members of the family of the late Roger Mortimer, first earl of March (1287-1330): his daughter Agnes (d. 1368), widow of Laurence Hastings, earl of Pembroke (1320-1348), and his namesake grandson and heir Roger Mortimer, second earl of March (1328-1360).  It has thus been stated by one modern historian that Isabella and her dead lover's daughter "became close friends and hardly ever separated," which is a heck of an assertion to make on the strength of one visit and a couple of letters recorded in Isabella's account, and is unfortunately all too typical of the excessive romanticising which bedevils much modern writing about Isabella and Roger Mortimer.

The countess of Pembroke who visited Isabella in the last months of her life was almost certainly not, in fact, Agnes Hastings née Mortimer, but Marie de Châtillon, also known as Marie de St Pol, widow of Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke (d. 1324) and founder of Pembroke College at Cambridge University in 1347.  Countess Marie and Queen Isabella formed half of a group of four highly born ladies who were good friends and kept in touch for many years, the other two being Edward II's nieces Elizabeth de Clare and Joan of Bar, countess of Surrey (Marie herself was a great-granddaughter of Henry III and thus Edward II's first cousin once removed).  All of them were much of an age: Isabella was probably born in late 1295, Elizabeth in September 1295, Joan in 1295 or 1296, and Marie probably in the early 1300s and the youngest, who lived until 1377.  There seems to me no particular reason why Agnes Hastings née Mortimer of all people would be a 'close friend' of the dowager queen, and in fact she wasn't.

The comes de la March dined with Isabella three times in 1357/58, on one occasion with her son Edward III and her eldest grandson the prince of Wales also present.  This man has almost always been assumed to be Roger Mortimer, second earl of March, born in 1328 as the only son of Roger Mortimer's eldest son Edmund (d. 1331) and his grandfather's heir.  Again with the romanticising, we get "He was the grandson of her lover and was specially favoured by the old Queen."  How do we know he was 'specially favoured'?  Because he dined with Isabella three times?  When Isabella was in France in 1325, she dined no fewer than four times in the space of a few weeks with Othon de Grandisson, an elderly lord of Savoy who had been a close friend of her husband's father Edward I.  Isabella also dined four times in 1325 with the dowager countess of Foix, Jeanne d'Artois, daughter of Edward II's first cousin Blanche of Brittany.  Does anyone ever say that Othon was 'specially favoured' by Isabella?  Or that the countess of Foix and the queen 'became close friends and hardly ever separated'?  Well, no, because Othon and Jeanne were not members of Roger Mortimer's family.

Neither, in fact, was the comes de la March.  The man referred to in the account who visited Isabella was not the English earl of March, Roger Mortimer the younger, but the French comte de La Marche, who was taken prisoner by Isabella's grandson Edward of Woodstock at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 and who lived in England for some years as part of the entourage of King John II of France, also captured at Poitiers.  In 1357/58, Isabella dined with several members of King John's retinue, including the counts of La Marche and Tancarville and the lords of Audrehem and d'Aubigny.  The comte de La Marche in 1357/58 was Jacques de Bourbon (1319-1361), Isabella's second cousin: he was the son of Louis, first duke of Bourbon, and grandson of Robert, count of Clermont, the youngest son of Saint Louis IX of France and Marguerite of Provence, who were Isabella's great-grandparents as well as Jacques'.  The title of comte de La Marche had formerly been held by her brother Charles IV.  (Jacques de Bourbon is a direct patrilineal ancestor of Henri de Bourbon, born in 1553, who succeeded to the throne of France in 1589 as King Henri IV, first of the house of Bourbon.)  For more info, see Michael Bennett, 'Isabelle of France, Anglo-French Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange in the Late 1350s', in The Age of Edward III, ed. J. S. Bothwell (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2001), pp. 219-22.

And so, Queen Isabella, for all the statements to the contrary, was not visited by or otherwise in touch with any of Roger Mortimer's family in 1357/58.  She did not mark the anniversary of his death on 29 November.  He is not mentioned at all in her last household account.  This wouldn't necessarily matter very much except for the statements by the historian cited elsewhere in this post, who claims that records relating to Isabella's life after her 1330 downfall are "silent on any memory of or regret for" her husband Edward II, except for her donation of food to the poor on the anniversary of his (supposed) death, 21 September.  If you're going to infer evidence of absence from absence of evidence (it's not as though we have a full record or anything like one of Isabella's post-1330 life), and use household accounts as a source for people's private sentiments towards their families and loved ones, at least be consistent.  Isabella's last account doesn't mention Roger Mortimer in any way, and also does not mention any of his family, so why romanticise so much about their relationship and talk endlessly about Isabella loving him "with great passion" and becoming unhinged with grief after his death and all the rest?  This is merely confirmation bias: if you think that Isabella hated her husband, wanted him to die and was 'delighted' when he did, you'll see the lack of many references to Edward in her last account as evidence of this, and if you think she adored and was passionately in lust with Roger Mortimer, you'll ignore the lack of any mention of him in the account and grossly exaggerate the occasional references to people you think were his family members, even though they weren't.

I wonder where, and what exactly, this historian thinks all these missing references to Edward II in Isabella's household account would be anyway?  It's a record of her financial outgoings more than thirty years after Edward's official death written by a clerk, the queen's expenditure on food, gifts, minstrels, charity donations and so on, not a diary where Isabella herself noted down her most intimate feelings and scrawled 'Izzy hearts Rog 4ever' in the margins.  Isabella made charitable donations on the anniversary of the death of her second son John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall (d. 1336), but did not, apparently, mark the anniversary of the death of her elder daughter Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders (d. 1355).  Would anyone take this to mean that Isabella never thought about her daughter, never mourned for her, didn't regret her early death, didn't give her a second thought?  Of course not.  Yet somehow, Edward II not being referred to on every page on her account simply must mean that she never thought about him.  Some people see what they want and expect to see when it comes to Isabella of France's relationships with Edward II (despised him!) and Roger Mortimer (adored him!).  This romanticising of her association with Roger is not new.  When her household account was first published in Archaeologia in 1854, the author wrote of the visits by the comes de la March, wrongly assumed to be the younger Roger Mortimer: "And thus, we have an indication that time has scarcely weakened Isabella's fidelity to a criminal attachment; although [Mortimer] had been torn from her, she still cherished his memory and sought her friends among those most nearly allied to him."  The visit of the countess of Pembroke, i.e. Marie de Châtillon and not Agnes Hastings née Mortimer, on 15 December 1357 is said to have been "a clinging on [Isabella's] part to the memory of Mortimer...".  Nope!  Afraid not.

Another myth often repeated about Isabella of France is that she chose to be buried next to Roger Mortimer at the Greyfriars church in London.  In fact he had been buried over a hundred miles away at the Greyfriars in Coventry.  To be fair, there is some contemporary evidence that Roger was buried at the Greyfriars in London: the usually well-informed royal clerk and chronicler Adam Murimuth says he was.  This is actually untrue, though it may be that the London Greyfriars took temporary possession of Roger's body after he was hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1330 until their brethren of Coventry came for it or the body was otherwise moved to Coventry, hence Murimuth's confusion on this point.  Roger's widow Joan Geneville petitioned Edward III in 1331 and again in 1332 for permission to move his remains from the Greyfriars in Coventry to his home at Wigmore in Herefordshire so that he might lie among his ancestors, and it seems highly unlikely that Joan wouldn't have known where her husband's body lay.  [Calendar of Close Rolls 1330-33, p. 403, dated 7 November 1331; The National Archives SC 8/61/3027, dated sometime in 1332, which states that the Greyfriars of Coventry had refused to comply with her earlier request and the king's order for Roger's body to be re-interred].  It is not clear if Roger's body was ever moved from Coventry to Wigmore (Adam Murimuth says it was), but in any case, it is apparent that he was not buried at the Greyfriars church in London when Isabella was interred there in 1358.  Isabella was laid to rest with the clothes she had worn to her wedding to Edward fifty years previously on 25 January 1308, at her own request -  I think it's lovely that she'd kept them all that time - and apparently also with his heart lying in a casket on her chest.  Edward II's heart, not Roger Mortimer's, as some people nowadays seem to think.  Isabella did decide not to be buried next to her husband at St Peter's Abbey, now Gloucester Cathedral, though I'm not sure in fact if her burial place was her own choice or her son Edward III's, who might have thought it was inappropriate for his mother to lie next to his father given the events of 1326/27 and thus chose instead the fashionable Greyfriars, where his great-aunt and step-grandmother Marguerite of France, queen of England had been buried in 1318 and where the heart of his great-grandmother Eleanor of Provence, queen of England, also rested.  Four years later, Isabella of France's youngest child Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, was also buried at the London Greyfriars.

If we wanted to, we could 'prove' that Isabella of France never gave Roger Mortimer another thought after his 1330 execution.  I'm certainly not arguing that this is the case, of course, merely pointing out in this post that it would make more sense than stating that Isabella never gave her husband a second thought, given that she founded a chantry for Edward in 1342 (perhaps because she knew that he was dead by then), marked the anniversary of his (official) death on 21 September 1327 and was buried with his heart and the clothes she had worn to their wedding fifty years before, and given that neither Roger Mortimer nor, contrary to popular belief, any of his family are mentioned in Isabella's last household account.  It would be really nice if historians could allow the evidence to speak rather than imposing their pre-existing views and opinions on it and making the evidence say what they want it to.  This, unfortunately, happens often in narratives about Isabella's association with Roger Mortimer.

07 August, 2015

Edward II, Duke Henryk and 14th-Century Murals at Siedlęcin (Guest Post)

Today, I'm delighted to welcome the lovely Kasia Ogrodnik, who runs a fab site about Edward II's great-great-uncle Henry the Young King, to the blog!  Today she's not talking about Henry, but about some fantastic fourteenth-century wall paintings which fortuitously exist to this day in Poland.


The first had the makings of a good ruler in him, but instead of the tedious business of kingship, he preferred doing the things that made him happy and fullfilled. The second was always busy safeguarding the borders of his small duchy in the heart of Europe, but with the makings of an artist in him. The first is one of the most maligned kings in English history, the second is the unsung hero standing alone against the foreign domination. To the first we owe two Oxbridge colleges: King's Hall at Cambridge University and Oriel College at Oxford University, to the second we owe the beautiful wall paintings depicting the legend of Sir Lancelot of the Lake preserved in his tower at Siedlęcin, at present the only ones in the world that can be seen in situ. The first probably never heard of the second, for Silesia was one of the most divided and fragmentated regions of the 14th-century Europe and, with the notable exception of the Bohemian kings, nobody even tried to remember the names of its dukes, but even if so, the second must have heard of the first, if not of his turbulent reign then certainly of his forced abdication and alleged death. Today I am going to take a closer look at King Edward II of England and his contemporary, Duke Henryk I Jaworski [Henry I of Jawor]. 

Tomb effigy in the town hall of Lwówek Śląski, depicting with all probability Duke Henryk and his wife Anežka (photo: Ludwig Schneider)

When the twenty-three-year-old Edward of Caernarfon, prince of Wales, duke of Aquitaine, earl of Chester and count of Ponthieu, ascended the throne of England after the death of his father in July 1307, duke Henryk (b. 1292-1296) was staying under care of his lady mother Beatrix, daughter of Otto V the Long, Margrave of Brandenburg-Salzwedel, till December. Henryk's father, Duke Bolko I the Strict, died six years previously, on 9 November 1301, when his three surviving sons were all minors. In December 1307, however, more less at the same time when Edward's beloved Piers Gaveston was holding a splendid tournament at Wallingford during which he managed to offend half of the realm, Henryk's elder brother Bernard came of age and oficially took care of his younger siblings. Henryk remained under his protection till 1312.

In February 1312, Edward was staying at York where on the 20th he took part in the churching ceremony of his niece, the wife of his beloved Piers Gaveston, Margaret de Clare, who forty days earlier gave birth to a daughter Joan, and where his queen, Isabella, joined him. Celebration that followed was paid for by the king. Piers had just been recalled by Edward from his third exile. It was in York where Edward and Isabella's son, the future King Edward III (b. 13 November 1312) was conceived. At the same time, in a far away Silesia, Henryk, now in his late teens, oficially began his independent rule. The duchy was to flourish under his rule (next to his brother Bernard's Duchy of Świdnica it was one of the richest regions in Central Europe).Whereas 1312 proved fatal for both Piers Gaveston and Edward - the former was murdered on 19 June on the orders of the nobles, the latter went into deep mourning for his dead friend - it must have been full of promise for the young Henryk, for he got vigorously to work. One of the first things he did was launching an ambitious building project in the village of Siedlęcin [the then Rudgersdorf], north-west of Jelenia Góra. At present the tower that was put up there is not only a rare surviving example of the medieval residences of this type, but also one of the best-preserved in Central Europe. It stands 22 metres high, in a lovely spot of fresh green and the Bóbr River lazily winding its way through the surrounding meadows. Initially it was a standard representative-defensive keep with its top crenelated. Thanks to dendrochronological research the archeologists were able to determine that the trees used for ceiling construction had been cut down in 1313 and 1314, so 700 years ago! The roof that can be seen today is a later addition - dendrochronological research proved that the trees for its ceilings were cut down in 1575.

Ducal tower of Siedlęcin (source: Internet)

In the years to come, when Edward was still mourning for Piers, Henryk joined forces with the anti-Luxembourg coalition formed by the nobles of Bohemia disgruntled with their new king John [later know as the Blind] and married Anežka Přemyslovna [Agnes of Bohemia], the daughter of the late Valclav II, king of Bohemia and Poland, and granddaughter of Przemysł II, king of Poland. At the time of the wedding, in 1316, Anežka was eleven years old and stayed with her mother, Queen Dowager Ryksa Elżbieta, till 1319 when she arrived in her husband's duchy and the marriage was consummated. Nine years later, on 24 August 1325, when in England Edward had a payment made to Jack Pyk, a valet of the chmaber "on the information of the king's little Knife" (the nickname for one of the king's chamber staff), Henryk and Anežka, who were within fourth degrees of consanguinity, finally obtained dispensation from Pope John XXII. As for the hostilities that broke out in 1316, they marked the beginning of over twenty years of Henryk-John conflicts, with the latter attempting to assert feudal supremacy over the lands of the former.

The unique Lancelot paintings preserved in the former Great Hall of the Tower (courtesy of the ducal tower of Siedlęcin)

In the 1320s Edward alienated most of the nobles of the realm, wreaked vengeance on those who participated in the Contrariant Rebellion and got himself involved in a number of pointless feuds with his bishops, all this with Hugh Despenser the Younger on his side. The latter was so high in Edward's favour, so powerful and so hated that he provoked the Marcher lords into a series of attacks on his lands, known today as the Despenser War. When he was captured with the king in 1326, his fate was sealed. So was Edward's. The king was deposed and allegedly murdured in 1327. The echoes of those events must have reached Silesia. Unfortunately, we will never learn what Henryk thought about it. It seems that at the time he was busy planning his major undertaking. Preserved monuments and names of the Arthurian characters given to the sons of the Silesian noblility indicate that the Arthurian legends were known at the courts of medieval Poland and Silesia, but Henryk was the first Piast ruler to comission Arthurian paintings in one of his seats. It seems, however, that whereas the Plantagenets were interested in using the Arthurian material for political purposes, just as Edward's father in his fight against Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, Henryk seemed to have had the walls of his great hall painted chiefly for esthetic purpose and his own pleasure. Perhaps it was also a matter of prestige. Anyway, his financial problems might have stemmed from his grand projects, the building of the tower and comissioning of the murals. One of the theories holds that whoever he was, the author of the beautiful Lancelot paintings came to Świdnica and Jawor in the 1340s, with the wife of Duke Henryk's nephew, Agnes von Habsburg (1315-1392). Agnes was the daughter of Duke of Austria, Leopold I from the House of Habsburg, and Catherine of Savoy, which meant close ties with Switzerland. Historians point out that there were close analogies between the Siedlęcin paintings and the ones existing around Zurich and Konstanz at the time. Of course the Swiss connections might have been established earlier which would mean that the murals were painted long before 1338. Needless to say, today they truly are one of a kind.

Duel between Lancelot and Tarquin (courtesy of Hannibal Smoke: Emplarium)
By 1335 John the Blind of Bohemia made all the Silesian dukes pay homage to him, all except Henryk and his young nephew, Bolko II the Small of Świdnica [Schweidnitz]. Henryk and John eventually came to terms, but Henryk never bowed his neck under the yoke of the king of Bohemia. He remained independent ruler until his death in the spring of 1346. Ironically, King John, Henryk's greatest opponent, died only a few months later, fighting bravely at the Battle of Crécy . It is fascinating to speculate whether Edward might have heard about the battle, after all his son won a great victory over the French that day. If he still lived, he must have been in his sixties, leading a peaceful life of a hermit in Italy.

Lancelot sleeping underneath the apple tree (courtesy of Hannibal Smoke:Emplarium)


Thank you so much, Kasia, for that fascinating post! Here is the link to the medieval Ducal Tower in Siedlecin: http://www.wiezasiedlecin.pl/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=97&Itemid=101